COURTESY OF JESSE WU
Seafood local to New England played a vital role in shaping Wu’s childhood.
It’s Friday. I’ve cleared my plans for the evening. My forest green, slightly baggy Mercy Medical volunteering polo sits folded up in the dark drawer of my IKEA dresser. Classes are done for the day, and I’m ready to meet up with the one special woman in my life.
Short, smiley and beautiful with gleaming jet-black hair that ends at her shoulders. She doesn’t look a day over 40.
She came to town from a business trip to Boston, and like all moms, she brings me food when she visits. But she isn’t any old mom; she is the best mom in the game. She will go the distance to make sure I am happy and eating well in college.
Once, during my freshman year, she even sent me an entire family style meal. Home-smoked beef brisket, sliced thin and stir fried with a choy stem and red peppers. Pork and Chinese chive stir fry. Yu choy with garlic. My hallmates and I were feasting.
This time she really outdid herself. After the mandatory greeting, hug and brief lecture about how I need to be less stressed, she opened the trunk of her rental 2019 Nissan Maxima. Inside the box was a cooler, and inside that cooler was our dinner.
Four magnificent plump lobsters, alive and kicking among the ice packs. They were purchased from a central Massachusetts seafood store that we used to visit when I was a child.
The seafood meals of my childhood were the white New England counterpart to the stir fries and seaweed soups and steamed fishes. Sometimes, the cultures of my heritage and of my environment would mix in the fermented black bean lobster stir-fried with ginger and scallion or the Atlantic cod steamed with soy and ginger. These sights and smells have been displaced by those of the Pacific Northwest’s salmon and Maryland’s blue crab and Old Bay in my high school and University days, respectively.
But a part of me is still that underweight boy from central Massachusetts, struggling to fit in at the predominantly white schools. The boy who was a math whiz, earning 6th place in his grade level at a statewide competition. The boy who scraped his knee learning how to ride a bike without training wheels by riding down the long suburban driveway.
So, when Mom rolls into town with four live lobsters and two pounds of Maine steamers (a variety of relatively soft-shelled clams local to New England), what does this boy do?
He spends the entire day between taking walks across campus and grocery shopping at the nearest Asian supermarket, between showing Mom the places he spends his time and being shown what vegetables and spices go well with seafood.
When we finally arrived back at my place, she took the liberty of wiping every surface of the kitchen and bathroom clean before starting to cook.
She picked up a mysterious vegetable at the supermarket, and she sliced it thin before stir-frying it with pork slivers and garlic. Mom didn’t know the name for it in English, but she told me my grandmother used to make it for my brother and I every time we visited China. This sort of vague familiarity triggered by childhood memories that have weathered many years of negligence is so pervasive in all my experiences.
My roommate Kunal sat down with my mom, snapping the leaves off the Chinese water spinach (kong xin cai), reserving the stems to be chopped into rice-size bits and cooked separately until tender.
All the seafood she brought ended up being steamed in my wok. I taught my roommates how to crack open a lobster and how to eat steamers. The tastes reminded me of days spent living a different life, and they reignited a part of my normally realistic and present-driven self that likes to look back romantically upon simpler times.
Maybe I’m not just a workhorse who puts his head down and grinds for achievement and professional fulfillment. Maybe there is still a part of me that wants to enjoy a dreamy American life.
I stuffed the last gulp of lobster juice-soaked rice and water spinach down my overflowing alimentary canal. As I said goodbye to Mom, my head came back down to earth.
What was I thinking?
Childhood reflection? Comfortable life? Romantic dreams? Nonsense.
It’s time to prepare for my overnight shift at the hospital, lay out this week’s paper and think about my next pop-up.